FLY or DRIVE? Actually it’s both — fly over the rails and let someone else do the driving

Two trains leave from the downtown Eugene train station — the Coast Starlight (above), which operates from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Credit: Courtesy photo
Two trains leave from the downtown Eugene train station — the Coast Starlight (above), which operates from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Whether it’s a short-distance jaunt from town to town or a cross-country journey, the notion of train travel comes with a sense of charm and industriousness.

“One of the things that makes passenger rail such an appealing option, for anybody but especially for those 50-plus, is it’s a really comfortable, flexible and convenient way to travel,” says Amtrak spokesman Craig Schultz. “The environment allows people to get up and walk around so you can certainly stretch your legs. There are lounge cars and parlor cars on certain routes and overall it is a memorable experience that people don’t forget.”

Through Amtrak’s 21,000 route miles in 46 states, travelers can reach more than 500 destinations in the United States and Canada, making it a great way to see the country. Amtrak operates more than 300 trains each day.

Two trains leave from the downtown Eugene train station — the Coast Starlight, which operates from Seattle to Los Angeles; and the Amtrak Cascades, which runs from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia.

“From Eugene you can access the entire national network,” Schultz says. “Our major hub for long-distance national travel is San Fran-cisco, and from there we have a cross-country train, the California Zephyr, which operates daily from Emeryville (just outside Berkeley and Oak-land) to Chicago. It takes three days and goes through the Rocky Mountains. It’s a really fascinating way to see the country.”

On the Coast Starlight route, a parlor car with big picture windows lets travelers take in scenery that never could be seen from an airplane or even a car. From Seattle, travelers can pick up the Empire Builder, which runs to Chicago.

From there, you can get to New York City directly, then the entire Northeast corridor, where Amtrak’s high speed Satellite Express and the Northeast regional services offer frequent departures be-tween New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“That’s a really great way to get right downtown in any of those cities,” says Schultz, “because you get basically downtown-to-downtown service.”

A brief history

President Nixon signed an act of Congress on Oct. 30, 1970, establishing the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, also known as Amtrak. The first train took off May 1, 1971, between Philadelphia and New York. Amtrak owns its equipment, but not most of the rail lines.

Seventy-two percent of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by other “host” railroads, which might be large companies, government agencies or small businesses. Amtrak pays these host railroads for use of their track and other resources needed to operate Amtrak trains, with incentives for on-time performance.

Amtrak receives funding from 18 states and other entities for financial support of 26 short-distance routes of less than 750 miles.

Locally, state funding helps support the Amtrak Cascades service between Eugene, Port-land, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., Canada. These state-supported routes carried nearly 14.7 million passengers during the fiscal year from October 2014 to September 2015. During that same time period, more than 30.8 million passengers rode trains, both for pleasure and to commute to their employment.

Benefits of train travel

Don Davis, 52, now lives in Portland but commuted daily for three years between Eugene and Albany for work. He took the Cascades train up and the Coast Starlight home. He’s also taken the Empire Builder from coast to coast, as well as the entire West Coast route from British Columbia to San Francisco.

While Davis says the stretch of rail between Eugene and Albany gets monotonous— particularly if you take it five days a week as he did, and the trains can be delayed —one enjoyable thing about traveling that way is that you can read, eat and drink, or sleep while going 80 miles per hour to get to your destination.

“Compared to driving it was a dream,” he says. “I have had a lot of good experiences on the train and wish we would invest more as a country. I prefer it to flying, although getting somewhere quicker usually trumps it for long trips.”

For long trips, Amtrak offers sleeping cars that on Superliner trains (double-decker, long-distance) are either small Roomettes for up to two adults, the Bedroom Suites for four adults, or the Family Bedroom for two adults and two children.

Alter-abled accessible bed-rooms are also available.

Viewliner trains (single-level, long-distance) offer the same options with the exception of the Family Bedroom. Each room has windows allowing for sightseeing opportunities from the privacy of your own room. At night, an attendant converts your seat into a bed that folds down from the wall.

The attendant is similar to a hotel concierge who can help with luggage, room needs and dining car arrangements, or get your meals delivered to your sleeping car if you prefer to take your meals in private.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Amtrak offers sleeping accommodations,” Schultz says. “Some people are comfortable enough to ride coach, but the sleeping cars are pretty unique. They are actually pretty remarkable when you see what they’re able to fit into a small space.”

The dining car is not only the place to get full-service hot meals such as steak, short ribs, vegetables and potatoes pre-pared by an Amtrak chef, it’s also a great place to meet your fellow travelers.

Tables seat four people, and if you make a dining reservation and there’s fewer than four in your group, you might be paired up with another traveler.

“That presents a way to really get to know people,” Schultz says. “You end up meeting people from all over the country and from any kind of background. Different trains have different menus. They all have a server and there are wine selections. It’s a classy experience.”

In the 1980s, Gordon Kenyon, 52, and Debbie Davenport Kenyon, 50, now husband and wife who live in Eugene, each separately enjoyed traveling to various destinations by train.

Debbie’s most memorable trip was a winter ride in 1984 from Los Angeles to Klamath Falls, which is about three hours south of Eugene. “It was amazing. I loved it,” recalls Debbie. “I couldn’t believe it was almost the same price as a Greyhound ticket. Literally, a few dollars difference.”

Debbie says she didn’t get carsick while traveling by train like she often did on buses.” I was able to walk around and have room,” she says. “And those giant picture windows and lounge chairs were a very deluxe experience.”

Gordon’s train experience was Amtrak commuter routes between San Francisco and Palo Alto, California, and between Richmond, Virginia, and Washington D.C.

“Every trip was relaxing and enjoyable, but notably on the East Coast the train was absolutely packed,” he says.

“The trip is 100 miles, and I remember being initially surprised by bicycles being parked on board and by the beauty of the scenery. The rail corridor did not feel urban at all.”

In addition to old-fashioned charm, trains have other benefits as well.

Unlike planes, trains offer stable fares that don’t change by the hour, with discounts for purchasing multi-ride route tickets if you ride the same rail line on a regular basis. Many short day trips don’t require reservations, so if you decide on the spur of the moment to take a train from Eugene to Portland, for instance, chances are good you’ll be able to.

You can bring onboard two personal items and keep your bags with you, so the things you want for your trip are easily accessible. Each passenger can check up to four bags, with the first two being free of charge.

Train riders generally feel there’s less hassle when traveling this way. That doesn’t mean there’s less security, as trains still have limits on what can be brought on board. Train staff perform random screen-ings and inspections of pas-sengers and their items, and hazardous items are never per-mitted on a train.

This experience isn’t free, however. Some people balk at the price of rail travel, but unlike airplanes, which whisk you from point A to point B with barely a glimpse of what’s in between, a train ride itself is part of the experience.

To get the lowest fare, Schultz recommends booking on Amtrak.com as early as possible. If you’re trying to get to your destination as quickly as possible and then spend money on hotel reservations, including a sleeping car in your train travel could end up being an enjoyable part of the trip.

“With a sleeping car, it is more expensive but it’s as if you’re paying for hotel accommodations while on-board,” Schultz says. “It’s not inexpensive but it can be well worth your dollars if you ask me.”

Consider for instance, a Eu-gene to Chicago trip, taking the Coast Starlight to Seattle then the Empire Builder to Chicago. The trip, with a sleeping car purchased a month in advance, costs$1,000.

“It’s not a one-day trip on an airline,” says Schultz, “but it’s a trip you won’t soon forget.”

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